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Novak Djokovic wades into Kosovo-Serbia controversy at French Open as dozens injured in clashes

After his first-round victory at the French Open on Monday, Serbian tennis superstar Novak Djokovic penned the message "Kosovo is the heart of Serbia. Stop the violence" on a television camera. The tennis champion's latest foray into controversial geopolitics came amid violence in his divided ancestral homeland that saw more than 30 peacekeepers in a NATO-led mission injured on the same day.

Tennis star Novak Djokovic speaks to reporters about Kosovo after his Round 1 match at the French Open in Paris, May 29, 2023. FFT/Reuters

Djokovic previously courted controversy with his decision not to be vaccinated against COVID-19, which saw him barred from multiple championships around the world, and then in January by defending his father, who appeared in videos during the Australian Open celebrating with fans holding Russian national flags during that country's ongoing war on Ukraine.

What happened in Kosovo?

The peacekeepers in Kosovo were injured Monday in clashes with Serb protesters who demanded the removal of recently-elected ethnic Albanian mayors, as tensions flare in the Balkan nation. Kosovo's ethnic Serbs boycotted last month's elections in northern towns, which allowed ethnic Albanians to take control of local councils despite a minuscule turnout of under 3.5 percent of voters.

Kosovan Prime Minister Albin Kurti's government officially installed the mayors last week, defying calls to ease the tensions by the European Union and the United States, which have both championed Kosovo's 2008 independence from Serbia.

National security adviser hails "remarkable" Serbia-Kosovo agreement 12:10

Serbia and its traditional ally Russia have never recognized that independence, and tension has continued in the largely ethnic-Serbian northern part of Kosovo, where many are demanding the withdrawal of Kosovo police forces. The Kosovan police's presence in northern Kosovo has long sparked resistance — as well as the ethnic Albanian mayors they do not consider their true representatives.

What did Djokovic say?

Speaking after his successful day on the courts in France, Djokovic made clear that in his mind, as in the minds of many in northern Kosovo, it remains not only part of Serbia, but "our cradle, our stronghold, center of the most important things for our country."

"As a son of a man born in Kosovo, I feel the need to give my support to our people and to entire Serbia," Djokovic told reporters after his match.

"My stance is clear: I am against wars, violence and any kind of conflict, as I've always stated publicly. I empathize with all people, but the situation with Kosovo is a precedent in international law," he said.

France's governing body for tennis, the FFT, which puts on the open, was quoted by the Reuters news agency as saying there were "no official Grand Slam rules on what players can or cannot say. The FFT will not be making any statement or taking any stance on this matter."

"Unprovoked attacks" and dozens injured

NATO'S Kosovo Force (KFOR) said it had faced "unprovoked attacks" while countering a hostile crowd after demonstrators clashed with police and tried to force their way into a government building in the northern town of Zvecan.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said 52 Serbs were hurt, three seriously, while one was "wounded with two gunshots by (ethnic) Albanian special forces."

Kosovo riot police and KFOR (NATO-led International Military Mission to Kosovo) military police, secure the entrance to a municipal building in Zvecan, northern Kosovo, May 29, 2023, following clashes with Serb protesters demanding the removal of recently elected Albanian mayors. AFP via Getty

Kosovo police said "organized" demonstrators had rallied in northern Kosovo and, "using violence and throwing tear gas, tried to cross the security cordons and make a forced entry into the municipality facility" in Zvecan.

"Police were forced to use legal means, such as (pepper) spray, to stop the protesters and bring the situation under control."

NATO-led peacekeepers in the KFOR mission at first tried to separate protesters from the police, but later started to disperse the crowd using shields and batons, an AFP journalist saw.

Several protesters responded by hurling rocks, bottles and Molotov cocktails at the soldiers, but were quickly pushed a few hundred yards away from the Zvecan municipal building.

"While countering the most active fringes of the crowd, several soldiers of the Italian and Hungarian KFOR contingent were the subject of unprovoked attacks and sustained trauma wounds with fractures and burns due to the explosion of incendiary devices," the NATO force said in a statement.

NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) soldiers, wearing full riot gear, place metal fences around the municipal building in Zvecan, northern Kosovo, May 30, 2023, a day after clashes with Serb protesters demanding the removal of recently elected Albanian mayors. STRINGER/AFP/Getty

Hungary's defense minister said on Facebook that "more than 20 Hungarian soldiers" were among the wounded, with seven in serious but stable condition. Italy's foreign minister said three of its soldiers were seriously wounded, and the country's prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, joined NATO in calling for "all parties to take a step back to lower tensions."

Russia says "big explosion" looming in Kosovo

Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008, and Belgrade and its key allies Russia and China have refused to recognize it, preventing Kosovo from gaining a seat at the United Nations.

Serbs in Kosovo remained largely loyal to Belgrade, especially in the north, where they make up a majority and reject every move by Pristina to consolidate its control over the region.

KFOR said it had bolstered its presence in northern Kosovo following the latest developments and urged Belgrade and Pristina to engage in an EU-led dialogue to reduce tensions.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking on a visit to Kenya, said "Serbs are fighting for their rights in northern Kosovo."

"A big explosion is looming in the heart of Europe, where NATO in 1999 carried out an aggression against Yugoslavia," Lavrov said, referring to the 1999 NATO intervention against Belgrade that effectively ended the war between Serb forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas.

The U.S. ambassador and European Union envoy have summoned the ethnic Albanian mayors to a meeting in Pristina in a bid to ease tensions.

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